German Expressionism, Explained [No Film School]

That dark stylish beauty synonymous with directors like Guillermo del Toro and Tim Burton has its roots in Germany during the 1910s, 20s, and 30s. Here, realism is done away with in favor of the distorted and the surreal. Mirrors, large shadows, and unbalanced camera angles are abundant. Strange worlds are created through a purely subjective eye. This is German Expressionism…

Despite German Expressionism never officially being a film movement, it pertained to other kinds of art forms as well. You may have seen this painting titled “The Scream” by Edvard Munch or read “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka. Both of these works take subjectivity to the extreme. In the films, the distorted scenery and canted angles put us in the mind of the characters. We see the world as they see it.

A different approach to art was being taken as a result of Germany’s isolation during World War I. During that time, Germany banned all imports, which included foreign-made films. So, the demand by the German film-going public caused a massive influx of German films being made. The country went from producing “24 films in 1914 to 130 films in 1918” (wiki).

As a result, artists used fantasy and exaggerated visuals to work out the feelings of the German mindset in the wake of the First World War. Something large was looming just overhead. And if you look closely, it isn’t hard to see the thematic connections between some of the most important of these films and what was going on in Germany during that time.

For example, a Fritz Lang film titled “Dr. Mabuse the Gambler,” follows a hypnotist who uses mind control to force others to commit crimes for him— he is eventually imprisoned in a mental hospital, but in the sequel titled “The Testament of Dr. Mabuse” the doctor continues to use his powers to manipulate others to commit crimes outside the prison walls. “The Testament of Dr. Mabuse” was scheduled to be released in Germany shortly after Adolph Hitler’s rise to power in January 1933.

Hitler had been imprisoned himself for a short time in the 20s where he had written his own “testament” titled “Mein Kampf” (or “My Struggle”), which would pave the way for the Nazi Party’s rise and manipulation of the German people. It was rumored that Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels saw the film and despite disliking it, offered Lang the position at the head of the biggest German film studio, UFA (Martin 20). Instead, Lang left Germany and went to Paris and then the United States (Martin 20).

Interestingly enough, mind control and manipulation found its way into several of the movement’s biggest films including perhaps the most famous—“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”—in which a hypnotist manipulates a man in a dreamlike state to commit a series of murders. The themes of authority and conformity in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” are both a reflection on post-World War I Germany and a disturbing foreshadowing of what was to come (wiki).

Expressionism made its way to Hollywood after many in the German film industry fled to the US during the rise of the Nazi party, but the influence of expressionism was not merely confided to the films that these German artists worked on (Martin 20). The noir genre of the 40s and 50s was heavily influenced by expressionist style (mainly in its use of shadows) and many horror films also adopted the aesthetic created by the German Expressionist movement. Although the historical context has changed, the influence of the German Expressionist movement continues to inspire with its dark and distorted beauty.

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